The Design Process

What is the typical font design process?

Usually, a font design starts with an idea for a certain look or feeling to evoke or things like a time period or specific usage case. An idea may come at random and get written down or sketched by hand. This may result in further drawings to get to the right design or alternatives. There may be hand-drawn (usually still somewhat quick and rough) drawings or more detailed and careful drawings, sometimes on square grid graph paper or artist’s drawing paper or calligraphy paper. These may be guides when drawing on the computer, or may be scanned and traced or hand-digitized from page to screen with a graphics tablet and stylus. Or work may go directly to a computer-based vector drawing, such as Illustrator (and formerly, Freehand). This is then imported into FontLab or Fontographer. Or work may begin directly in the font design and editing software.

Once in the font editor, each character glyph (letter, number, symbol) is drawn or traced, and always corrected by hand by the designer. I often prefer now to start directly in Fontographer or FontLab.

This takes quite a while. The basic Standard character set is 279 glyphs. The Pro set is about 433 glyphs. The Pro with Small Caps is over 800 glyphs. The Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic set doubles that, and adding Small Caps doubles it again, more or less. Specialty picture, icon, logo, or dingbats fonts take time for each symbol drawn.

A font for other languages or writing systems, modern or historical or fictional, can take longer and requires some knowledge and research questions for how the writing system works, how it is used. But this would be a welcome challenge, and can be fun and educational; plus, it can fill a very practical need for people who use the font to write in a given language system.

The first step is to draw the basic Standard character set, starting with the alphabet, punctuation, numbers, and symbols, in whatever order suits the process. Then adjustments are made along the way, to get the characters looking just right. Then more symbols and punctuation are done, and the accented letters are added. The letters and the accent marks must be positioned so they look right. Also, in building a font, there are usually some things in common, building blocks that can save a little effort. But mostly, it’s a long process.

Then initial kerning and spacing is done to get the glyphs evenly spaced in text with neighboring glyphs. Kerning is how letter pairs fit together to save space and look visually correct, to feel right and to be easy to read. This means going through lots of combinations by kerning classes. Spacing is the basic letter-spacing or side-bearings built into the font. There are also ligatures, overlapping or custom-joined character pairs or triples, where another glyph is drawn. These are old traditional things.

This gets us a single font-face in a font-family in the Standard character set. For example, the lightest Roman or Italic face. Already, that's quite a lot.

Now, we may jump up to the Pro set or higher, and kern and space those. This is at least twice the work. Each set doubles, more or less.

Along the way, we may also figure out the complex process of creating alternative glyphs, such as the single- and double-story a and g, or the angular and h-like y, or others, sometimes also to give a more natural custom look so that not every letter looks the same. For example, two T’s might be slightly different. This is used a lot for swash characters, script fonts, and grunge effects.

Now we’re ready to make either the boldest weight or the companion Italics. This is a lot of moving around to adjust things, or it’s doing another font (such as the Italics) from scratch. But usually, we use the existing font as a jumping-off point. While the boldest weight and the Roman and Italic faces are drawn, there may be tweaking back and forth so things match. Finally, we get our lightest weight in Roman and Italic and our boldest weight in Roman and Italic. Now we can have the software create (“interpolate”) intermediate weight faces. However, this does not always give perfect results; the results can sometimes be comical, or they can be nearly right. So the intermediate faces need hand-adjusting to get them to look right.

Eventually, we get all the faces in the family just right, and the font is then ready to be submitted to be reviewed for publication. Any technical details are corrected and any wants or needs or suggestions to improve the font-family or how it’s used are then made. For example, the font may be a real hit and more weights may be called for, or special features may be wanted that will improve the usability and salability of the font-family. Finally, the font-family gets through the review and editing process. Then it can be made available for sale.

Note this assumes everything goes right. There can be problems along the way, where it just doesn’t look or feel quite right, and what it needs isn’t clear right away. Or the design goals may not be clear, so the font may sit waiting for a while, until how to make it right resolves itself. Other work may take priority. But usually, the problems work themselves out as the design process moves along toward a finished product.

It is a lot of work to produce a single font-face or a whole font-family. However, there is nothing like seeing a new, working font design in use. — I would love to see examples of my fonts in use, and sample pieces for my portfolio are welcome.